Silver Lake resident Bobby Peppey went for a walk on Sunset Boulevard a few days after New Year's and quickly realized something was wrong: There wasn't as much shade.
Someone had cut back a handful of trees at Sunset Triangle Plaza, a city-owned patch of green space that borders Sunset and Griffith Park boulevards. Those trees, planted roughly a decade earlier, had grown tall enough that they blocked views of the rooftop billboard next door, Peppey said.
City officials say the work, carried out between Christmas and New Year's, left three trees so badly damaged that they will need to be replaced. Six others were so severely cut they will take years to grow back, they added.
"It's a huge loss," said Peppey, a 59-year-old retiree. "We could sit there and be shaded in the middle of summer — 90 degrees — and not have the sun blaring on us."
Outfront Media, which owns the billboard, confirmed it hired the tree-cutting company. Now, Peppey and his neighbors are calling on city leaders to crack down on the sign company by pursuing criminal charges and securing concessions.
Ryan Brooks, Outfront Media's senior vice president for government affairs, said his company fired the tree trimming crew for doing the work without city permits. But he declined to say whether he agrees with residents who portray the tree-trimming work as a "hatchet job."
"I'm not an arborist, I wouldn't know," he said. "I could see this tree and I wouldn't know one tree from the next tree."
Foes of outdoor advertising describe the situation on Sunset Boulevard as part of a larger, citywide problem. Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, said he has photographs of street trees in Venice, Mid-City and elsewhere that were hacked after growing too tall near a billboard.
"These are trees that belong to the public. They're a visual and ecological amenity to the city," he said. "And for billboard companies to just cavalierly hack them off is really disturbing."
Hathaway said he never managed to catch tree cutters in the act. But in late December, a community volunteer in Silver Lake spoke to a member of the tree trimming crew at Sunset Triangle Plaza. That worker provided the name and number of a contact at Outfront Media, according to Genelle LeVin, president of the Silver Lake Improvement Assn.
Since then, residents have circulated a petition targeting Outfront Media and attended a community meeting devoted to the controversy.
Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who helped arrange the meeting, plans to introduce a motion Tuesday to make sure such incidents do not happen again. O'Farrell said Outfront should be held accountable for its contractor's "act of vandalism."
"These trees were trimmed to make the billboard visible, and that was the only consideration that was made," said O'Farrell, whose district stretches from Echo Park to Hollywood.
O'Farrell said Outfront Media has agreed to replace the most seriously damaged trees and provide other contributions to the plaza, such as the installation of umbrellas for shade. But Brooks said that his company has not made any commitments, and that conversations with the community are continuing.
Under the city's regulations, billboard companies have the right to trim street trees near their signs if they pull the proper permits and get the property owner's consent, said Ron Lorenzen, assistant director for the city's Bureau of Street Services. They also must follow city guidelines on how the tree is pruned, he said.
If Lorenzen's agency finds that Outfront damaged public property, City Atty. Mike Feuer could pursue a misdemeanor case that comes with a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.
"Unlawfully hacking down trees is totally unacceptable," Feuer said in a statement. "If the evidence confirms that's what happened here, we'll prosecute."
Brooks said billboard companies have been responsible for trimming thousands of trees across the city — saving taxpayers the trouble. There's no reason to change a policy that works, he added.
Peppey, on the other hand, doesn't trust advertising firms to be stewards of the city's urban forest.
"I don't think the billboard companies should be touching street trees, or trees in our parks. When they do, it's vandalism," he said.